DeSantis tells masked students to end ‘COVID theater,’ House approves tax holidays, and more

DeSantis on masking: Gov. Ron DeSantis asked several high school students standing behind him at a news conference at the University of South Florida on Wednesday to take off their masks, calling it “ridiculous” and “COVID theater.” Pointing at the students, DeSantis said, “You do not have to wear those masks. Please take them off. Honestly, it’s not doing anything. We’ve gotta stop with this COVID theater. So if you wanna wear it, fine, but this is ridiculous.” Two of the seven Middleton High School students declined to remove them, and DeSantis then began the press conference to announce a $20 million grant to USF for cybersecurity education. When asked why DeSantis would speak to students that way when he’s said that wearing a mask is an individual choice, spokeswoman Christina Pushaw said, “As the governor said, you can wear them if you want but there’s no evidence they make any difference. That has been clear for a long time, and the data informed our state’s official guidance.” WFLA. Associated Press. Orlando Sentinel. Sarasota Herald-Tribune. Tampa Bay Times. Miami Herald. Politico Florida. Florida Phoenix. WTVT.

In the Legislature: The House has unanimously passed a $325 million tax cut package that includes four tax holidays, including a 14-day suspension of sales tax collection on back-to-school items such as computers, clothes and supplies. House and Senate negotiators will now meet to reconcile the differences in their bills. News Service of FloridaFlorida Politics. A “Victims of Communism Day” would be held every Nov. 7 under a bill approved by the Senate that is now headed to Gov. DeSantis. If he signs it, the bill will require high school students to receive 45 minutes of instruction on that day about how citizens of certain countries have suffered under communist rule. Florida Politics. Schools would be required to create individualized plans to care for students who have epilepsy or seizure disorders under a bill passed Wednesday by the Senate that is also headed to DeSantis for a signature. News Service of Florida. Negotiations between the Senate and House are continuing over the differences in their budget proposals for higher education and other areas. Politico Florida. News Service of Florida.

Around the state: Duval school officials say declining enrollment could cause changes in their plans to build new schools and renovate existing ones, Hillsborough County will use federal funds to convert two lightly used career centers into career academies, Lee County high school students will have different schedules next fall as the district tries to stem learning loss and save money, Sarasota school board members narrowly approve new restrictions in the public comments portion of board meetings, and a new poll shows that public support for school choice has gone up by 8 percentage points since April 2020. Here are details about those stories and others from the state’s districts, private schools, and colleges and universities:

Miami-Dade: The mother of a student at Palmetto Middle School in Pinecrest was recently arrested and accused of physically assaulting a teacher during a parent-teacher conference. School police said Stephanie Armas, 34, was told that her son was acting up in class, and she responded by saying it was because he had been threatened. At that point, police said, 8th-grade social studies teacher Mayade Ersoff told Armas, “You need to learn how to raise your child.” Armas responded by striking the teaching, spitting on the principal’s desk and throwing a picture frame at Ersoff. Miami Herald.

Hillsborough: Two little-used career centers will undergo an overhaul with funds the district has received from the federal government. D.W. Waters, which is operating at just 9 percent of capacity, will become a medical academy and Bowers-Whitley, which is only 11 percent full, will become a construction trades academy. Both will open in the fall of 2023, said Superintendent Addison Davis. He also said Brewster Technical College, which is near Waters, will reopen in 2024 as a medical technical college. Tampa Bay Times. WFLA. WTSP. WFTS.

Orange: A teacher at Oak Ridge High School in Orlando has been arrested and accused of having a sexual relationship with a student. Cameron Burke, 40, a teacher and computer technician, began having sex with the student in the fall of 2020. The relationship continued through May 2021. Burke has been put on administrative leave during the district’s investigation. Orlando Sentinel. WKMG. WOFL. WESH.

Duval: A 6 percent decline in traditional public school enrollment is causing district officials to consider downsizing some construction projects at at least 20 schools, including six new schools and 14 scheduled for renovations and maintenance. The projects were part of the 2020 campaign for an extra half-cent sales tax approved by voters. “These are scenarios that if enrollment doesn’t improve, the board will possibly need to consider,” Superintendent Diana Greene recently told school board members. “But we’re not ready to have a community conversation yet, because we need another enrollment study.” Florida Times-Union.

Polk: Two committees have begun reviewing 16 books that were taken off school library shelves after two conservative activist groups complained that they contain pornographic descriptions of sex and are inappropriate for school ages. The committees will read all the books and meet every week or two to discuss them. The next meeting is March 10. When the committees are finished, they will make recommendations to the school board, which will decide whether to retain or remove the books. Lakeland Ledger.

Lee: Interim superintendent Ken Savage has announced that high school students will have seven class periods a day starting next fall instead of the current four. Right now students take four long classes every other day. Next year they’ll take seven shorter classes every day. Savage said the change will help close the learning gap and require fewer teachers, which could save the district $10 million. Union officials disagree. WINK. WFTX.

Sarasota: School board members voted 3-2 to approve a new policy on public comments at board meetings. Speakers will be limited to two minutes, and name-calling won’t be permitted. Board members Bridget Ziegler and Karen Rose voted against the changes. Charlotte Sun.

Escambia: Fifty 5th-graders from from Brentwood Elementary School are in the inaugural class of STARBASE Pensacola, a program at Naval Air Station Pensacola offering each 25 hours of STEM education. “It’s introducing kids to STEM concepts that are attached to not only to education but also careers, and the program will hook STEM concepts in the kids’ minds,” said school Superintendent Tim Smith. “This exposure will make them say, ‘I can do this. This is in the realm of possibility.’ ” It’s a “big, huge, huge win” for the district, he said. Pensacola News Journal.

Clay: Lawyers for the school district are asking a judge to dismiss a lawsuit brought by two parents who claimed a school counselor coached their elementary child into a gender transition without their approval. The attorneys deny the charge, and argued that the suit should be dismissed because of the vagueness of the complaint, the “murky” legal grounds on which it sits and a lack of any policy that the plaintiffs claim the district violated. WJXT.

Hernando: Cari O’Rourke, the assistant principal at the Challenger K-8 school, has been chosen as principal for the Winding Waters K-8 school in Brooksville. She replaces the retiring Janet Cerro. WFTS.

Colleges and universities: Effects of a new law will give 350 incoming out-of-state college students in-state tuition rates because their grandparents live in Florida. The discounts are part of a bill signed into law last year by Gov. DeSantis. Fresh Take Florida. An investigation into the conduct of former Florida International University president Mark Rosenberg concluded that he “acted in a manner that was unprofessional and that he crossed appropriate boundaries in his behavior towards and interactions with a female subordinate.” Rosenberg resigned Jan. 21. Miami Herald. Tim Kinsella, the recently retired commanding officer of Naval Air Station Pensacola, has been hired to create and direct the new Center for Leadership on the University of West Florida campus. Pensacola News Journal.

School choice support: Public support for school choice has gone up by 8 percentage points since April 2020, according to a new poll from RealClear Opinion Research. Support was up across political and racial demographics. The results were called “stunning” by Tommy Schultz, CEO of the American Federation for Children. reimaginED.

Around the nation: Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody is joining her counterparts from several other states to investigate the effects the social media platform TikTok is having on children. Specifically, the attorneys general wants to see if TikTok is targeting kids’ attention spans and causing children emotional and mental harm. Politico. Charter schools were able to adjust to online-only learning forced on them by the pandemic more quickly than traditional districts schools, according to a recent study by Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes. Reason.

Opinions on schools: Gov. DeSantis channeled his inner “Karen” with his rant at a group of students for wearing masks at a press event. Miami Herald. The GOP’s ongoing assault on teachers proceeds from the assumption that an instructor might try to convert a gullible, confused student into a tawdry lifestyle. That is, of course, ridiculous, even for the GOP Fear Machine. Joe Henderson, Florida Politics.

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BY NextSteps staff